MODES – The Mystery – The Myth

Aeolian Mode, Dorian Mode… Mixolydian Mode!! Oh my! The fear! The horror! What does it all mean???

Today, you will see the unraveling of the mystery of musical modes. Today, in one day, you will see the myth dispelled, once and for all. But first, we need to know what modes are. There is a little fictional story that may make it understandable, a bit humorous, and totally non-mysterious.

But to tell this story and make it truly understandable, you must know at least something about music. You must know the major scale. You remember. It’s the old “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” sounds that you sang as a small child. Those are the notes of a major scale. What’s a major scale? It’s those notes, those sounds. If you look at the C major scale on the piano, it is simply the white keys from C to C. (Do you know where C is on the piano?)

Okay, let’s not assume that you know where C is. There are white notes and black notes on the piano. The white notes reach all the way out to the ends of the piano keys, but the black notes are shorter and therefore harder to play. They are what are known as the sharps and flats. The black notes move in groups of two then three then two then three. The C note is the first white note to the left of any set of two black notes. But the C major scale is just the white notes and only the C major scale has no sharps or flats in it. Now that you know where C is, you can play from C to C on just the white notes and you will get the familiar sound. Now, let’s go on with our story.

A Tale of Two Greek Boys (the mode names are Greek-related names)

Once upon a time, Andropolous (whom we will just call Andy) and Alexander (we’ll call him Alex) were both at Andy’s house. Andy was an accomplished pianist and Alex knew this. This day, Andy was working on a composition and was experimenting with a set of chords (which you don’t need to know about at this time). He asked Alex to improvise some melody notes on top of his chords.

Well, Alex flatly refused saying, “Andy, I know nothing of how to play the piano. I can’t improvise anything.”

Andy replied, “It’s very easy. You just play the white notes, only,” and Andy showed Alex the white notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G, and showed him how they repeated all the way up and down the keyboard.

“So how does that tell me how to improvise melody?” asked Alex.

“Easy,” Andy answered. “On my first chord, you just tinkle only the white keys from C to C and back in any order you want. Just try to keep the same beat you hear me playing.”

“Okay,” Alex said, a bit confused, but willing to try.

Andy played the first chord with a bit of a lilting rhythm to it. Alex began to doodle around from C to C and back and it actually sounded pretty neat!

Andy stopped and said, “That’s great! That was the C major scale you were playing. Now, when you hear me change to the second chord, you just tinkle around on just the white keys, but go from the D to the D and back.”

Andy played the first chord and Alex doodled around from C to C and then Andy changed to the second chord. When Alex doodled around from D to D it sounded perfect, but it had a sadder sound to it, almost an Oriental sound.

This startled Alex and he stopped and said, “Wow, Andy! What is that?”

Andy replied, “That’s the C major scale!”

“No, it can’t be,” insisted Alex. “It sounded so different.”

“Well, it is the C major scale but when I played a C major chord it had one sound, and then when I went to a D minor chord and you played from D to D it sounded different, but was the same scale, just with a different starting and ending point. I call that the tonal center.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Alex. “We need to give it another name to show the difference.”

After some time and arguing, the name Dorian Mode of the C major scale was the name they chose.

“So you changed chords, but I played the same scale on both chords?” asked Alex.

“Yes, we were playing in the Key of C so you used the C major scale both times. But we can call it the Dorian mode when you go from D to D in the C major scale if you want.”

“Yeah, that will give me an idea which chord I’m playing with, the D minor chord.” Alex said.

“Well, get a load of this,” Andy said (in Greek of course). “I’ll play C major and you go from C to C and back, then I’ll play D minor and you play the C major scale from D to D and back, then I’ll play an E minor chord and all you have to do is stay on the C major scale again, only the white keys, but go from E to E and back.”

“No way!” Alex exclaimed (also in Greek… “No way” was common slang even back in those days.)

“Yep, let’s try it.”

They played and the improvised melodies fit perfectly through all three chords!

“Okay,” Alex blurted out. “We are calling this one the Phrygian Mode, after my aunt Phrygia. She loved music, but I thought I could never play.”

“Okay,” Andy said, “but what about the first one. If the others have mode names, the regular C major scale from C to C should have one, too. How about Ionian?”

“Ionian?” asked Alex, “From what?”

“I don’t know. It sounds Greek enough.”

“Okay, fine. So the Ionian mode is from C to C on the white keys, the Dorian mode is from D to D on the white keys, and the Phrygian mode is from E to E on the white keys. Are there more?” asked Alex.

They went through the chords C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G dominant seventh, A minor, B diminished and back to C major. The improvised melodies always fit like a glove and the respective names were Ionian mode (C to C), Dorian mode (D to D), Phrygian mode (E to E), Lydian mode (F to F), Mixolydian mode (wow, what a name, G to G), Aeloian mode (A to A), Locrian mode (B to B) and back to Ionian mode (C to C). They all sounded perfect with each of the respective chords.

“So I can play piano now in the key of C and all I have to know is the name of the chord you’re playing so I can go from the note that is the name of the chord up and down to it,” Alex said in amazement.

“That’s right. See how easy and fun music can be?”

So there you have it. The mystery of modes is finally unraveled. You just play the scale of the key in which the song is being played (in the story it was the key of C) and stop on the appropriate note. The whole point was to make playing EASY, not more complicated. Alex did not need to learn a new scale or set of fingering each time the chord changed. He just had to stay in the key of C, but create a “tonal center” for each chord by starting and stopping on the note that was the letter name of the chord. He did not have to worry about minor, dominant seventh, or diminished. It was all taken into account by staying in the major scale of the key of the song. The mystery of what modes are is now solved. Now for the myth!

High School Band

A whole step is when you move up the keyboard two notes and a half step is when you move up the keyboard one note. (Wow, is that ridiculous or what? What’s a half of a note? But let’s stay with “their” way and say okay to that.).

If you play the C major scale (only the white keys from C to C) you will see that the steps in the C major scale are: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. This is true if you count the black keys as notes in between the white notes, and you should because they are.

ALL major scales use these same steps in this same order. This is also true. You should memorize these steps so that you can play any major scale.

Now for the Myth Part

So, if the Dorian mode is from D to D, or the second scale note to the second scale note, now the steps are: Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole. You should memorize this (NOT!!! THAT’S A MYTH!. You are playing the same C scale, just starting on a different note!)

And if the Phrygian mode is from E to E, or the third scale note to the third scale note, now the steps are: Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole. You should memorize this (NOT!!! THAT’S A MYTH!).

And if the Lydian mode is from F to F, or the fourth scale note to the fourth scale note, now the steps are: Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half. You should memorize this (NOT!!! THAT’S A MYTH!).

Do I really need to go further? The BOOKS say that you should memorize these steps and their new orders, but if you know the steps in the major scale, you just pick different starting points, not memorize new sets of steps.


They say that if you play from D to D using the steps Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole (the C major scale steps from 2nd to 2nd), that you are playing D Dorian! You’re NOT!!! You’re playing the C major scale, Dorian mode! So it should be called C Dorian! But by calling it D Dorian, you have to memorize the new set of steps and they can keep you in class longer and fill your head with more nonsense and confuse you so you have to really work hard to get a good grade and you’ll never get to see how easy and how much fun music is!

So they made the mode names mean different sets of whole and half steps, rather than signifying the tonal center note from the scale of the key of the song. Ionian is 1st to 1st, Dorian is 2nd to 2nd, Phrygian is 3rd to 3rd, Lydian is 4th to 4th, Mixolydian is 5th to 5th, Aeolian is 6th to 6th, Locrian is 7th to 7th. And of course you could do Ionian again to complete the octave.

Below you will see the results of a search on for the word “mode”. Notice that the numeric “1” has no text on the same line. That’s because it is the common, most often accepted meaning for the word. Each following numbered definition is a derived or contrived meaning which can also be considered, but it is not the “root” meaning of the word.


a. A manner, way, or method of doing or acting: modern modes of travel. See Synonyms at method.

b. A particular form, variety, or manner: a mode of expression.

c. A given condition of functioning; a status: The spacecraft was in its recovery mode.

2. The current or customary fashion or style. See Synonyms at fashion.

3. Music.

a. Any of certain fixed arrangements of the diatonic tones of an octave, as the major and minor scales of Western music.

b. A patterned arrangement, as the one characteristic of the music of classical Greece or the medieval Christian Church.

Now the first definition, the “real” definition, suggests that a mode of the C major scale would be a manner of doing (playing) the C major scale. This fits our little story precisely. Alex was to stay in the major scale of the key of the song, namely the key of C, and play that scale different ways. He was playing different forms or manners of the C major scale. He was not playing different scales. Therefore, the name of the Dorian mode that he played should have been C Dorian, because it was the Dorian “way” of playing the C major scale.

If you look at the third definition, labeled “Music” you will see that a mode is a certain fixed arrangement of diatonic tones (major scale notes). In this newly accepted definition, you now have to accept the modes each as new arrangements of the notes, and you must now memorize all the new sets of whole and half steps, and you must now call these arrangements of notes by “false” names.

Ask any music graduate what the notes are in D Dorian. He will almost assuredly say, “D, E, F, G, A, B, C, and D.” According to the third definition above, this is true. But those are the notes in the C major scale. Why isn’t it called C Dorian? It’s a different way of playing the C major scale. By that third definition, we must call it D Dorian, which is not only false, it’s misleading. This is because it’s the C major scale and not the D major scale. The notes in the major scale are called “Root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and Root” again. By the third definition… the “Music” definition… the notes in D Dorian as related to the normal D major scale would be, “Root, 2nd, flatted 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, flatted 7th, and Root.” Then they tell you to memorize which notes are flatted in the Dorian mode. The C major scale has no flats or sharps.

Therefore the Dorian mode (method of the playing) of the C major scale has no flats or sharps! Dorian mode doesn’t mean a new set of notes for the scale, it means a new way to play an old familiar scale that fits the music.

If you ask them to tell you the notes in G Dorian, they will say, “G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F, and G.” Those are the notes in the F major scale! That should be called F Dorian so that we know we’re using the F major scale.

Let’s see how they make it more ridiculous. Ask the notes in A Aeolian. You will hear, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A.” Wait! That’s the C major scale! Of course it is. The Aeolian mode of the C major scale is the way of playing the C major scale from A to A, or with its sixth scale note as the tonal center. It is C Aeolian, not A Aeolian. You don’t need to learn a new set of steps for the Aeolian mode. Just play the C major scale that you already know, but start on the sixth note.

They want you to know:

D Dorian is the D major scale with the flatted 3rd and flatted 7th notes.

E Phrygian is the E major scale with the flatted 2nd, flatted 3rd, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.

F Lydian is the F major scale with the sharped 4th note. (Wait, this one is sharped!!)

G Mixolydian is the G major scale with the flatted 7th note.

A Aeolian is the A major scale with the flatted 3rd, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.

B Locrian is the B major scale with the flatted 2nd, flatted 3rd, flatted 5th, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.


Add to that the fact that some methods teach that A Aeolian really is the C major scale, they want you to memorize all the garbage above and to know things like D Aeolian is the B major scale, but D Phrygian is the B flat major scale, E Mixolydian is the A major scale. STOP!

If you used the first definition of the word “mode,” then E Mixolydian would mean you are playing the Mixolydian method of the E major scale. D Phrygian would still be the D major scale, the Phrygian way, and D Aeolian would also be the D major scale, but the Aeolian way. The modes were to originally intended to help make playing easier for Alex. Can you imagine what Alex would have said or done if Andy had put him through all the GARBAGE? He would have said, “No thanks,” and walked away, never knowing the ease and joy of playing music. How sad that would have been.

Well, good luck, then, students. If you must go through traditional music training, just remember that once you have learned your major scales, the modes are just different methods of playing them. The following might help:

Ionian means start on the 1st scale note – this fits the major chord.

Dorian means start on the 2nd scale note – this fits the minor chord.

Phrygian means start on the 3rd scale note – this fits the minor chord.

Lydian means start on the 4th scale note – this fits the major chord.

Mixolydian means start on the 5th scale note – this fits the dominant seventh chord.

Aeolian means start on the 6th scale note – this fits the minor chord.

Locrian means start on the 7th scale note – this fits the diminished chord.

Now, their way, you’ll have to figure out the real major scale. For example, with their way if they say E Phrygian, you have got to think that Phrygian really means start on the third scale note, so the actual major scale you’re playing is the scale you get when E is the third scale note, namely the C major scale. What a PAIN!! But that’s the way “they” do it. I like my way better!


About the Author

Mike Ellis is currently teaching in the Dallas area and has thirty-four years of music instruction experience. Mike had the great fortune of being apprentice to one of the great teachers of our time, Mr. Terrill Gardner. Terrill taught Mike HOW to teach. Many musicians wish to “share” their knowledge, but have no training in the art of teaching.

Mike has been in bands since he was thirteen and has played with all kinds of folks, even academy award winner Robert Duvall.  He has recorded on multiple albums and in several studios in Dallas over the years.  Not only is he a teacher, he is a performer as well.

But the greatest rewards for Mike come from teaching.  Mike has three children, all grown now, and loves to see growth of all kinds, but especially musical growth. 

While at McCord Music Company, Mike was not only tutored by Terrill Gardner, but worked side-by-side with musical greats like Chuck Rainey (recorded with Aretha Franklin, Ricki Lee Jones, and a host of others), Greg Bissonett (UNT drummer who went on to play with David Lee Roth and many more), Mac Dougherty (jazz guitar teacher at Berklee College in Boston), and Christopher McGuire (classical guitarist extrodinaire who auditioned for Andres Segovia in Spain).

Mike completed “Modern Method for Guitar” books I, II, and III from Berklee college, attended the Johnny Smith Seminar in Dallas, and authored two chord theory online courses (guitar and keyboard). Check his website for more about Mike.

Copyright © Mike Ellis 2009

Jan 31st, 2017 | Posted in Music
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